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(Producing Arts for a New Generation)

Storefront Theater

deep aboveground

"It's like the strings tugging at your heart when the love of your life walks by!" laughed one of the merchandise guys over a bustling lobby crowd to a girl inquiring what PANG meant. Well, that's unlikely, sir, but something powerful certainly pulled a number of curiosities into the Storefront Theater on Friday, February 1. In a city where the hip-hop scene might seem to be struggling, there is hope, my friends.

A diverse and brilliant group of young artists pumped energy into the intimate 99-seat theater when they recently performed the premier of ABOVEGROUND, a show that had its audience anticipating "a fusion of hip-hop and theater ... that dismantles clichés," and delivered just that.

ABOVEGROUND is one of the many events brought to life by a group called PANG (Producing Arts for a New Generation). Now in their second season, PANG is a Chicago-based ensemble of young producers from varied fields who aim to embrace knowledge, interaction, and expansion in order to challenge existing mass tastes and ignite a visionary flame within themselves and their audiences. PANG is one of several programs of Free Street, an organization that, since 1969, has supported revolutionary performing arts by young visionaries and aims to "amplify the quiet voices shaping culture." Their success is evident in performances such as ABOVEGROUND, in which the voices involved were anything but subtle.

The Platter Pirates (DJ Kico and DJ Spryte) kicked off the show with a short but sweet set of original beats and fresh technical skills, and set the dynamic mood for the rest of the night without saying a word. Impressive - yet not surprising - as Kico is a two-time holder of a regional title, and Spryte is a recipient of the International Turntablist Federation World Scratch Championship. DJ Spryte, or Chris, said that he's been spinning since about '96 and is involved mostly in performances and productions such as ABOVEGROUND, as opposed to the club scene. Primeridian, Chicago hip-hop duo Simon Viltz and Jaime Roundtree, fell nothing short of the Platter Pirates DJ Crew, proving that there is much more to their art than the rap most of our ears are accustomed to. "See-me-on" and "tree" performed spoken word versions of their work that was released on albums that included other rhyming masters such as Mos Def (Guidance Recordings). They later turned things up a notch, or ten, with tasteful rhyming and a bit of freestyle. Although I was disappointed that Wrigleyville's own Won Yup Kim, student and artist, didn't do any live graffiti, his performance spoke effectively to the issues that he and other graffiti masters face. Won mimicked a city worker (complete with orange vest) by laboriously rolling white paint over his own work that was displayed on a wall. Meanwhile, video master Konee Rok displayed footage of Won visiting sites throughout Chicago where his murals had been destroyed due to a city ordinance. The result? A powerful combination of documentary and performance that addressed the misfortune of attempted suppression of graffiti art.

The Chicago Tribe Break Dancers (three B-boys and one B-girl) performed an outstanding and graceful piece choreographed to a BjÖrk composition that maintained the innovation and energy that is alive in the clubs. The four managed to harmonize wild moves with a fresh mellow soundtrack. They took an efficient approach to another set of moves by playing a kind of "Simon says" with a dancer on the video screen, whom they mimicked, challenged and collaborated with.

In the same way it began, the show ended with a video capturing different artists and musicians active in the hip-hop scene trying to define the term "hip-hop" and the culture that lies behind it. One artist's response: "If you have to ask the question, you'll never truly know."

Was ABOVEGROUND attempting to defy, embrace or simply challenge that concept? The answer: All of the above.

The mastermind behind ABOVEGROUND, 22-year-old director and student Franco DeLeon is active in theater as well as hip-hop culture. About six or seven months of work went into the show, during which Franco said he was likely listening to anything from James Taylor to James Brown.

"My interests are various and I want to blend the person I am into my art ... cross theater and art in order to appeal to a bigger audience," Franco said. In response to the issue of hip-hop culture's claim to staying underground, Franco said: "You grow up and realize that you want to make a career. ... I do what I do, I like what I like, and I want to share that."

When PANG deemed Franco a "sound and movement fusionist," he hit it on the head by responding with great thanks to them for giving him something to fuse.

PANG's next production at the Storefront Theater is a multi-media collaboration by artists Shirka Urechko and Erin May entitled Hobo Love Stories, and will take place in April. Several other events they have planned will take place at the Free Street space, for "$10 or pay what you can."

Photographs by J. Luca Ackerman

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